With the new season of American Horror Story seeking to do with bleeding statues what it once did for gimp suit clad ghosts from beyond, it seems a good time to take a look at some of the most famous horror stories set in asylums.
Asylums are naturally creepy places. Just a few ranks below abandoned coal mine where that terrible accident happened five years ago this very night, but substantially creepier than that old Indian Burial ground where all those folks keep disappearing. Though there are substantially more horror films than written horror stories set in these repositories of dread, there have been more than a few tales to make their mark.
The Thing At The Door Step: The most famous asylum in horror literature is H.P. Lovecraft’s gothic wreck Arkham Sanatorium. Arkham has cast a long shadow over pop culture, not only did it act as the obvious inspiration for Gotham City’s asylum of the same name, but the real life inspiration for it, Danvers Mental Asylum, served as the setting for the cult horror film Session 9.
For all that it features surprisingly little in the author’s work (not half so much as Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University), but turns up most prominently in Lovecraft’s The Thing At The Door Step, a story of wife who possesses her husband and ends up interred at Arkham for the last third of the book.
The Thing may not be as well known as some of Lovecraft’s more iconic tales, but it comes up with some suitably frightening concepts, and as always when writing about the asylum and the town that surrounded it, Lovecraft was in his element.
Legion: William Peter Blatty’s follow up to The Exorcist follows detective William Kinderman, one of the supporting characters in the original, as he tries to piece together a series of sacrilegious murders, that seem tied both to the earlier events at Georgetown and the work of a Zodiac like killer who died a decade earlier. The search leads him to a hospital, which includes a dementia ward for senile patients. Things do not go well.
Blatty’s prose is something of an acquired taste, and Legion is written in his trademark avuncular Borscht belt style. Most will honestly probably prefer Blatty’s film, released as The Exorcist III, which pares down his eccentricity, but preserves his unique style and adds in some brutally jolting scares.
But both versions make fine use of the asylum as an environment. Filled with dark secrets, depressing crumbling structures, and eerie catatonic patients who only seem harmless.
Dread: Clive Barker’s beloved argument for not making friends with sociopaths follows a student who makes friends with a charismatic, slightly insane upperclassman. Said upperclassman is doing studies in the nature of fear, and no points for guessing that he is not simply hanging out with the main character of the student in order to have someone to watch the game on Sunday with.
Dread climaxes with the main character trapped in an abandoned asylum, which is turned into a creeping echo chamber of his own fears. Dread is probably the most intense story on this list and shouldn’t be approached lightly. However, it’s Barker at his best, and that’s awfully damn good.
Voluntary Committal: The novella at the center of Joe Hill’s story collection 20th Century Ghosts is bookended by visits to the asylum where the main character’s savant brother lives. Most of the story is set earlier, during the lead character’s high school years when one of his careless actions ends up causing a tragedy. This tragedy is one that is both resolved and exacerbated by his little brother’s abilities.
It would be unfair for me to give away the traps that Hill has left behind in Voluntary Committal. Suffice it to say by the end of the story the titular suggestion looks as though it might be a damn good idea. Though as the brilliant denouncement suggests even that might not do you any good.
This Book Is Full Of Spiders: David Wong’s follow up to the equally brilliant John Dies At The End, ends up taking place for most of its middle third in the insane asylum where our narrator ends up quarantined during an outbreak of invisible spiders that nest in the human brain. As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there’s not an invisible spider burrowed into your brain. The asylum, patrolled by predator drones from without, and dealing with an infestation and good ole fashioned human weakness from within in becomes the setting for Wong’s hardest hitting horror and most provoking ideas.
As Wong’s books depend upon his preternatural ability to escalate his events to unsuspected level of insanity with the momentum of a freight train, I will keep things vague. Suffice to say by the time the flying buffalo show up you’ll know that things have gotten real.
Any favorite stories set in or around an insane asylum that you’d like to add to the list?